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Published: August 21st 2016
Those of you who know Frank well, know that he dances on the inside. It takes something special to get him up on the dance floor and today, the Hotel Bellevue was it. We all fell under its spell. Part of the magic was that when we first arrived, just after lunch, the whole area was shrouded in low cloud and light rain was falling. All the surprises were still to be revealed. It was our first walk in the rain so far, but the dampness didn't spoil the mood. The grey day changed the beautiful colour of the river, but I loved the wispy cloud that floated amongst to pine trees. We said goodbye to the lovely Hector and Courmayeur quite early (I can't believe we never learned his real name!) and after a short stop to look at the Pont d'Ael in Aymavilles, we walked along the river for a while and then began to climb. But only briefly. Today's walk was short, more of a stroll really, and after a look at the view we were soon back down near the water again. Mick pointed out some reinforcing beams that we'd been noticing at regular intervals along the
river and explained that ramps slot into them in Winter so that skiers can cross the river. Very clever. We passed beehives, some pretty little villages and about 50 ducks and geese in the front yard of one chalet before the unmistakeable aroma of sausages on the barbeque drifted our way. A gorgeous baita (mountain hut) soon appeared through the trees and when we got closer, there was Jackie at the barbeque with a spectacular spread of cheeses, salads, meat and fruit laid out on a huge table in front of her. She has fabulous timing. Mick got his fingers smacked for sneaking a sausage but it was really what we were all dying to do! They were little Italian chipolatas, deliciously spicy and the smell of them cooking was fantastic. After a magnificent lunch, we sat, relaxed and sampled a home-made liqueur made from some sort of berry which was delicious. Apparently it also brings on memory loss. "Some sort of berry" is the best I can do.
When we felt able to move again, we walked back along the river and across a bridge to a path which led us over a meadow of long grass right
to the door of our hotel. It was like stepping into a time warp - old, gracious and just slightly kitsch but in a good way. The alpine antiques here are real - no modern reproductions, and have been passed down through the generations because this hotel has been family-owned for a long, long, time. There are beautiful pink and white flowers everywhere, and I saw one young employee in traditional dress, dead-heading geraniums with a pair of scissors! Everyone seems to take real pride in their work. We checked in, then the afternoon was ours to spend as we liked. After a visit to the amazing spa (which is spread over 3 levels and will take more time to explore properly) we joined the group downstairs for a wine-tasting class in the hotel cellar with the Bellevue sommelier. In a coincidence, the sommelier, Enzo, just happens to be the famous Giovanni's brother. (Giovanni looked after us at Forte Di Bard). Over delicious antipasto platters, he explained to us that since taking over the job at the Bellevue, he has increased sales to the point that he now has no yearly budget. No budget! He is trusted to just buy
the best wine and look after it, and to run the events in the cellar. We had a lot of fun with him, as his wine tasting was not your average show and tell. He had prepared a quiz for us, complete with a prize for the person with the most correct answers, and we did a blind tasting while he explained about different grape varieties and storage methods. Frank was most amused - in an embarrassed sort of way - when Enzo's cursory glance at his answer sheet resulted an outburst of laughter! "I suppose that means I didn't win," was Frank's dry comeback. He was not the only one to strike out though. Julie was the group's quiet achiever, with a perfect score. She insists it was pure dumb luck, but I think there may be some dark horse talent lurking behind that innocent face. Her prize was a kiss from Enzo and a very interesting 'thing'. The expression on her face and the fact that she had to ask what it was, brought more laughter from everyone. The object was a "Coppe dell'Amicizia" or "Friendship cup". These contraptions are famous in the Aosta Valley. While it looks
like a wooden teapot with multiple spouts, it is nowhere near as benign. If you ever come across one in a bar, I recommend you take the side exit, because it is T.R.O.U.B.L.E. A barman takes the pot and mixes a concoction of Genepy (a type of liqueur from the Aosta valley which is definitely an acquired taste), hot valdostana coffee, spices, orange rind, and some other lethal ingredient that is a secret, then watches the resulting mayhem. Apparently you don't have to worry about sharing spouts on a Coppe dell'Amicizia because what goes in it is usually strong enough to act as an effective disinfectant! It is important that the cup is shared, in fact the local saying goes, "He who drinks it alone will choke". Or die of alcohol poisoning.
With the formalities over, Enzo took us on a tour of the cellar and his 'Babies', stopping to explain what was special about a few select bottles and caressing a few others on the way (Not really, but almost!). I had to purchase one bottle in particular, just for the romance in its story. There is a certain champagne which spends eighteen months at the bottom of
the sea in Portofino under pressure, to achieve the smallest bubbles possible. After the eighteen months the bottles are barnacled and sandy, but rather than scrubbing them so that they appear shiny and new, they are covered with shrinkable plastic before being sold so that they retain some of their character. It looks fantastic (and the champagne tastes good too, I am told). I'm planning to enjoy a cold glass on a balcony near the sea with friends, sometime before the end of this trip. While wandering through the wine racks, I did recognise the famous Chateau Rothschild Margaux but was less familiar with some of the other labels wiith hefty price tags. We browsed for ages before saying good-bye to Enzo and heading off for more fun.
Greg didn't give anything away when he invited us to join them for a drink on their balcony, but when we walked through the door with him we were surprised by the most stunning view from a hotel room I think I've ever seen. While we had been soaking in the spa, and tasting wine, the rain had stopped, the cloud had lifted and the whole valley, including Gran Paradiso, was
bathed in brilliant blue sky and sunshine. A few hours earlier, we had walked into the hotel right past this view and not even realised there was a mountain there! Down below us, the hotel chefs were gathering produce for the evening meal from the beautiful kitchen garden, and beyond that on the lawn, a single hammock sat on the edge of the meadow, calling me. I think I need to spend more time in that hammock doing absolutely nothing, but I had promised the others a quick game of 500 before dinner. The terrace was the perfect spot, and as we sat playing a rather funny round of cards, the hotel pianist came out to play for us. It was all too perfect so we couldn't resist stepping out onto the terrace to dance. (Well, that's not entirely correct - Frank did take a little convincing.) At just the right moment Julie came downstairs, so we even have pictorial evidence that it happened.
While we've been treated to some delicious appetizers with our cocktails elsewhere, the Bellevue Hotel took it up a notch with little Caesar salads in glasses and tiny tomato and bocconcini cups garnished beautifully. There
was a lovely antique wooden display shelf on the bar which the chefs re-stocked periodically with tasty morsels. I think I have a photo of it.
As the late afternoon sunshine began to turn to dusk, we hopped into the vans and drove a short distance to a restaurant high on the hill that we'd walked past earlier in the day called Lou Bequet. Our long table ran almost the length of the windows which overlooked the river, and at one end where Frank was sitting, a dumb waiter was getting a real workout bringing meals up from the kitchen. We got a warm welcome from the chef's wife who was running the front of house, and the wine started flowing the minute we sat down. Our starter arrived on enormous rectangular plates and was truly magnificent. Ocean trout carpaccio, a cheese fondue and........ Steak tartare. Now, I have seen steak tartare on many menus but have never been tempted to try it. I just haven't been brave enough. I don't really know why, I've eaten sea urchin in Barcelona, beef carpaccio in Melbourne and beetles in Asia but I struggled with the steak tartare concept. I did not
The now-famous steak tartare!
And trout carpaccio, and cheese fondue. Fantastic.
know what I was missing! (The fact that all raw meat and seafood in Italy must be blast-chilled before being served might also have helped to allay my irrational fears). This beautiful disc of top quality, finely diced beef was garnished with shavings of Parmesan and black pepper and will go down as one of the most memorable dishes of the tour. The tasting plate was so magnificent and so enormous that it was a bit of a shock to hear that roast lamb was going to be served next. By then things were pretty jolly at our end of the table and Frank started running a book on how many points of lamb everyone thought would arrive on each plate, based on the enormous entrees. He even roped our waitress in, who was enjoying the banter and hazarded a guess of four. The table erupted as the first plate was set down in front of Cate with no fewer than nine
lamb cutlets on the rack. Cate, who had been protesting at the thought of more food, turned pale. The waitress also looked a little shocked but at that moment the chef's wife came over (Probably to hose down
Rack of lamb for main course
A full rack! Everybody lost the points bet
the noisy patrons) and explained that "The chef thought, as you had been hiking, that you would be very hungry". There was stunned silence then more laughter at Frank's reply "So he went and caught every lamb in the Aosta Valley". We are still trying to work out how the chef was able to fit all the lamb in the oven at the same time. We had to honour his effort by demolishing dessert and coffee before heading back to the hotel, but I am thinking of suggesting a new concept to Mick and Jackie - "The Night Hike". Guaranteed to compensate for gluttony and prepare for the next day's excess! The cloud-beds at the Bellevue were turned down and ready for us when we got back and we sank into the cool white sheets wondering what could possibly top a day like this.
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